Concordia University’s decision last week to reject Hillel’s request to host former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on campus opened a floodgate of protest. At a peaceful demonstration outside Concordia’s downtown campus on Tuesday, speaker after speaker condemned the university for denying the principle of free speech.
The controversy comes two years after the university was the scene of a violent anti-Israel riot, when another former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was due to speak there.
That speech was canceled in the wake of the violence and Concordia became the target of international controversy, criticized for allowing pro-Palestinian students to dictate who can and who cannot speak there publicly.
This week, some 200 students, including some from McGill University and some Palestinian supporters, attended the rally along with community activists.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, a well-known community activist and spiritual leader of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, attended the rally in support of the students.
“Through its actions, this university has made a clear admission that it cannot guarantee a safe environment for a distinguished speaker like Ehud Barak,” Rabbi Poupko told JTA prior to the rally.
“They have also told us that any anti-Israel speakers are allowed to come here, but that pro-Israel speakers would cause a riot and are therefore denied access.”
Concordia has some 800 Jewish students out of a population of 30,000.
Concordia denied the Hillel request at a committee meeting that included university officials and campus security.
A statement by the director of security, Jean Brisebois, said that the security of members of the Concordia community could not be guaranteed.
At a hastily called news conference Monday afternoon, the vice rector of services, Michael Di Grappa, said the administration had consulted with Yale University, where Barak spoke recently.
“The situation there was different,” Di Grappa said. “The security carried side arms, fire arms and the building was more secure.”
Concordia’s security staff is unarmed.
Di Grappa denied that public opinion had anything to do with the decision.
“It is unfortunate, but a reality, that the safety of its community members and guests must occupy a central position in planning events at an institution dedicated to free speech,” Di Grappa said.
It was the principle of free speech that protesters addressed at the mid-day rally.
“Free Speech Unless Concordia Vetoes It,” stated one sign held aloft by a Jewish student.
Reverend Darryl Gray, a prominent black community and Christian leader, asked the crowd, “What are we afraid of?”
“This kind of information should never be suppressed” because it “makes us uncomfortable,” Gray said.
“What happens next? When someone doesn’t agree with the next speaker, and the next speaker, and the next speaker? Do we tell them we’ll support it, but only if they go down the street, only if they speak someplace else?”
Gray was referring to Concordia’s compromise solution that they would sponsor Barak’s speech at another venue, off-campus.
Gil Troy, a professor at Montreal’s McGill University, spoke attired in his academic robes.
“These robes are why I became an academic,” he said. “I come here as a member of the academic community, not as a professor. And I ask: Where is the leadership of Concordia? How come the streets here aren’t filled with academics, to defend these core values?”
“If we give in to intimidation today, what will become of tomorrow?” Troy asked. “Where is our good government if we can’t allow someone to speak? We need more speech, not less speech. We need more freedom, not less freedom. Let’s work on this together.”
Concordia Hillel’s co-president, Jason Portnoy, who sought permission to invite Barak to speak at Concordia, got a large round of applause when he took the microphone.
“There’s one word that has to rule the day,” he said. “Freedom, freedom, freedom. Today is just the beginning of our struggle, not the end.
“I’d be standing here today, with equal outrage, no matter who the speaker would be.”
The only tension at the rally appeared to be directed toward several Palestinian students gathered together to listen to the speeches.
Shujatt Wasty, 22, said she and three friends were listening when some people she assumed were plain clothes police asked them to step aside.
“They then asked us what side we were on. It was blatant racial profiling,” she said. “I have never been so humiliated in my entire life. And it’s pretty ironic, because we were talking about how we would be interested in hearing Barak speak.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.